Copper mining boomed in Butte with the outbreak of war in France. Unfortunately for the miners in Butte, 1914 also marked the beginning of over two decades of “Company” intimidation. Once a bastion for organized labor, the powerful Butte Miners’ Union fell into disarray and the Anaconda Company took advantage of the situation to blacklist radical labor organizers from The Hill. This open shop era undid many of the gains organized labor had achieved, turning back the clock on workers’ rights and protections and creating an atmosphere primed for an explosion. Three years into the Great War, the United States entered the global conflict on the side of Great Britain, France, and Russia.
Wrapped in the flag, Company owned newspapers and politicians across the state were quick to condemn any collective action on the part of works. In Butte, the mining companies pushed for quota urging their workers to “get the rock in the box.” The safety of the men was of little concern compared to profits for shareholders.
On June 8, 1917 – one hundred years ago today – the miners of the swing shift in Butte rose from bed, ate, picked up their dinner pails, and in some instances kissed their wives and families’ goodbye as they prepared to take their shift deep underground the richest hill on earth. It was just another day. Just before midnight a fire broke out in the shaft of the Granite Mountain over two thousand feet underground leaving more than 400 men scrambling to escape the fire and poison gasses that spread through the labyrinth of shafts connecting the Granite Mountain and Speculator Mines.
As word of the pending disaster spread through the community, friends, family, and concerned citizens gathered at the collar of the North Butte Mining Company’s Granite Mountain mine in the pre-dawn hours of June 9 waiting for word from those trapped below. Butte newspapers lauded the rescuers who descended into the smoke and flames to search for survivors. As the days passed the number of survivors dwindled and searchers began the arduous task of recovering the dead. In the meantime, the North Butte Mining Company’s office began receiving hundreds of telegrams from concerned people looking for information on survivors and recovery efforts.
Meanwhile, miners began to gather and discuss the need to revitalize the union resulting in the creation of the Metal Mine Workers Union, which crafted and delivered a series of demands to the mine companies most dealing with issues of safety. Company owners led by the powerful Anaconda Company urged Governor Samuel V. Stewart to declare martial law in Butte and use troops to suppress the strike. At the same time, company owned newspapers started printing propaganda labeling the new union leaders as agents working for foreign powers to disrupt war production. L.O. Evans, corporate attorney for the Anaconda Company, was sure that many Butte’s miners remained loyal to the United States and that had simply fallen under the spell of subversive organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World. This marked the beginning of almost five continual years of martial as miners and mining companies squared off in a fight for the soul of The Gibraltar of Labor.
The memory of the 168 still lives in our hearts and minds.